Ever had a bad neighbor?
You know: the upstairs family that sounds like a herd of elephants at night? The next door workaholic who likes to get the mowing done before rush hour?
While describing a census of the Jewish people and the role of the 12 tribes in transporting the Tabernacle, this week's portion also gives us a glimpse into what the world's worst neighbors can do.
Noting that Torah records that both the Levitical family of Kohath and the tribe of Reuben camped to the south of the Tabernacle, the medieval commentator Rashi writes: "Woe to the wicked person, and woe to his neighbor!"
The statement refers to an event recorded later in the book of Numbers, when Kohath's grandson Korach teams up with Dathan and Abiram — descendants of Reuben — to lead a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. In the ensuing challenge and Divine punishment, the earth swallows up the instigators, their homes and their families, and fire from above consumes another 250 people.
Rashi indicates that had the tribe of Reuben not been in such proximity to Kohath, then they might not have fared so badly. I may not be able to sleep at night when my neighbor decides to drill holes in his cement walls, but I don't imagine I'm going to get burned to a crisp. Indeed, Reuben's neighbors were truly bad.
The trouble with Korach wasn't that he wanted to lead the Jewish people, but that he chose to sow discord in order to do it. He wasn't satisfied to keep his aspirations "in house"; he brought along two others from a neighboring tribe to assist him.
It was their factionalism — each of them had their own claims to greatness — that sparked God's ire.
It's easy for people to be consumed by trivialities and competing desires. If you think about it, it might have been even easier for the Jewish people in the desert to succumb to what some of the founding fathers termed the "mischiefs of faction." When in the wilderness, without a ready source of water, inborn resentments can easily well-up and reveal themselves. You just need to have somebody else egg you on.
Fortunately, the Torah provides an antidote, far greater than any compact or law devised by government.
It's no coincidence that this week's portion is always read before Shavuot, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah. The portion's name, Bamidbar, literally translates to "in the wilderness." But when the Jewish people received the Torah, they were, in the words of the sages, with "one heart."
By putting Bamidbar in such proximity to the holiday, Judaism teaches that the best answer to division, to the spreading danger of dispute for the sake of dispute, is to find shelter in the spiritual.
That's what the tribe of Judah did, as they encamped to the east of the Tabernacle, right next to Moses and Aaron. Fittingly, Rashi invokes a principle: "Goodness to a righteous person, and goodness to his neighbor!"
There was no better scholar than Moses, and by cleaving to him, to God and to the Torah, the tribe of Judah merited to give birth to kings.
So even when we are challenged by our place in the world, we must consciously decide to make our spiritual home in the Torah.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: jrunyan@ chabad.org.